be honest, pandas are adorable. Their custodial guardians are a different
matter. From an environmental perspective, the People’s Republic is one of the
worst serial polluters in the world. However, any concern for Chinese
environmental policy is conspicuously absent from Disney Nature’s new Chinese
co-production. That may indeed be problematic, but those pandas are still just
as cute in Lu Chuan’s Born in China (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in New York.
an established Chinese auteur who often works with large canvasses (notably City of Life and Death, Last Supper, and
Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe), crisscrossed
China from the rocky edge of the Tibetan Steppe to the Eden-like Woolong Nature
Reserve, filming symbolically Chinese animals in their natural habitats. We
follow a mother snow leopard trying to provide for her young, watch a mischievous
golden snub-nose monkey on the verge of growing up, and chill out with a
contented panda lazing about with her cub. In between, we get some interludes
of iconic Chinese cranes. Parents should be warned up front, Born in China does not end well for one
of its focal characters (hint: it’s not the pandas).
there is so much anthropomorphism going on, Lu refuses to call it a
documentary, but a narrative film instead. His directness is refreshing, but Lu
and his crew were still stuck with the endings nature provided. In one case,
they try to spin some pretty dire consequences into an affirming manifestation
of the Buddhist cycle of life. That kind of works for us, but you’ll have to
judge for yourself whether that will work for your seven-year-old.
usual environmental message of most Disney Nature films is also conspicuously
missing. Frankly, Born in China does
not even bother to ask us to pick up our litter. You would have no idea
Mainland China has any environmental issues whatsoever from watching this film.
Rather tellingly, the English-language release was narrated by John Krasinski,
who wrote and co-starred in the anti-fracking drama Promised Land, partly-financed by a subsidiary of the government of
OPEC member state, the United Arab Emirates. So, apparently, his environmental convictions
are for sale to the highest bidder.
we would probably all be happier if Disney had just subtitled the Chinese narration
of Zhou Xun, because she’s a real movie star. In addition, Lu demonstrates his
keen eye for spectacle and grandeur. He and his battery of cinematographers,
including aerial specialist Irmin Kerck, capture some stunning shots. They also
manage to zoom in so up-close-and-personal, it makes it rather easy to ascribe
human emotions to their furry cast-members. They even include the nature
documentary equivalent of the Jackie Chan blooper reel during the closing credits
(“don’t worry, snow leopards never attack humans . . .”).
in China is an impressive
production, but it is rather disturbing Disney Nature presumably allowed their
Chinese partners to self-censor their ordinarily strong environmental
messaging. Once again, that “panda diplomacy” pays dividends for the Mainland
government. Nature lovers should definitely take in the wonders Lu records, but
they should temper it with an unvarnished look at Beijing’s exploitative land
use policies, such as Michael Buckley’s short doc Plundering Tibet (available on Vimeo here). For panda lovers desiring
a fix, Born in China opens this
Friday (4/21) in theaters throughout the City, including the AMC Empire.
Labels: Documentary, Lu Chuan, Nature films